Since 1985, the Children’s Cooperative Book Center (CCBC) has documented statistics on multicultural literature in publishing. The CCBC is a noncirculating research library for anyone interested in children’s and young adult literature. They receive almost every children’s and young adult book from the publishing industry in the United States each year and have seen the numbers for books by and about people of color grow, although that growth remains a very small percentage of all published books.
The CCBC defines multicultural literature as “books by and about people of color and First/Nation Nations,” (CCBC n.d.). The work documenting the statistics began based on a phone call and an awards committee many years ago.
In the early 1980s, the CCBC received a call from a librarian of a Milwaukee school who had just completed an assessment of the library collection and noticed that a lot of the books that were about African Americans were old or falling apart. Kathleen Horning, the current director of the CCBC remembers the librarian calling to ask for assistance in finding more books. “We noticed there just weren’t many,” Horning said. “I especially remember looking in the subject guide that year and found half a column of books about African Americans, as compared to pages and pages of books about bears.”
Near the same time, Horning’s predecessor, Ginny Moore Kruse was invited to serve on the Corretta Scott King Award committee for books by and about African Americans. Because she was on the committee, she knew exactly how many books were eligible that year, and was quite surprised to see that of about 2500 books, only 18 were by black authors, and only 12 were about African American people.
They were so surprised by the statistic they decided to document that number by printing it in the introduction to CCBC Choices, which is their annual list of the best children’s and young adult books. “It had an impact,” Horning said. “People knew there weren’t that many but didn’t know it was that few. The people who weren't surprised were African American teachers and parents.”
Shortly after they started publishing the statistics, USA Today did a story on how hard it was for African American parents to find books for their children. That story led to a flurry of publications calling the CCBC for interviews. Roughly five years later, they decided to keep other statistics too, including books by and about Latinx, Asian, and First/Native Nations people.
The CCBC has become a strong advocate of multicultural literature, publishing two volumes of recommended literature for children and young adults to help teachers and librarians to find books, numerous bibliographies and book lists on various topics and for different ages, and the annual CCBC Choices.
Their work has made an impact on the publishing industry. According to Horning, “for a while, we would see those numbers go up, but about 20 years ago, it flatlined. Until about five years ago, we noticed a real change in things that still hasn’t died down. We started seeing a welcome increase in the books. Initially, it was an increase in books about people of color and not by, but in the last two years, we’ve seen more books by,” she said.
Over the years, librarians at the CCBC have received more detailed questions regarding the books they get, like how many of the books overall deal with contemporary African American children and how many are historical; or what types of characters were actually in the books, since many books do not have people as subjects (i.e. animal characters or paranormal characters). So they decided to conduct a pilot of the picture books to discover in detail what they are about.
They not only logged information about the picture books, but kept a spreadsheet documenting the species, genre, whether the books featured characters of color in the background, a child with a disability, a visible religious minority, and other topics. Horning said, “we started keeping those statistics and they revealed interesting things like the number of picture books with animals far outnumbered picture books with children of color. Most of the animal characters were male--little things like that.”
In 2018, the CCBC received grant funding through The Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) to build a database with all of this information for those doing research on such topics. Public release of the database is expected later this fall.
The impact of all of this information has ranged from people having their suspicions about what was being published in children’s and young adult literature confirmed, to helping motivate some publishers who really want to try to make a change. Although change in the publishing industry is slow, Horning noted that the advent of We Need Diverse Books has made a lasting impression.
When asked to share something that surprised her over all of the years she has conducted this work, Horning said, “One of the most challenging parts of advocacy we have to do is convincing white teachers and librarians why it makes a difference to children to have diverse books. People do seem to get that children of color need to see themselves in books, but also the fact that it can’t be just any book-- it needs to be an authentic portrayal. For teachers or librarians who say ‘we don't have any children of color at our school or library so we don't need diverse books,’ those white children need diversity in their books if they don't see diversity in other places. Books are one of the ways they can be exposed to the world and people who are different.
If a teacher or librarian wants to learn more, they can start by looking at the books on the CCBC bibliographies and booklists, in CCBC Choices, and the book awards lists. Reading some of the books will help develop a good knowledge base, and, according to Horning, “they can start to find when something doesn’t seem authentic-- start to get a gut feeling about it and realize it doesn’t seem like those they've read.”
Find more information from the CCBC based on specific audiences:
- K-12 Teachers
- Childcare Providers and Preschool Teachers
- UW Students, Faculty, Instructors, and Teaching Assistants
Children’s Cooperative Book Center. n.d. “Multicultural Literature.” Accessed Aug. 5, 2019. https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/multicultural.asp